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The Alliance for Animals and the Environment submitted a complaint to the USDA last week, alleging animal mistreatment at Circus World in Baraboo.

The Madison-based organization included links to 19 videos and 10 photos in its submission to Elizabeth Goldentyer, eastern regional director of the USDA. The images were taken on July 16 and 23 by the organization’s Elephants Living Free campaign coordinator.

The Alliance lists concerns including a lack of proper health care, safety issues for the animals and the public, and insufficient enclosures for the tigers, giraffes and elephants housed at Circus World. The group cited an incident in which a handler tossed a saddle onto an elephant with a “large protruding abscess on (her) back hip. During the performance she is forced to sit and lie down on the abscess.”

Other complaints included an elephant left attended in a barn area that could be reached by a child, tigers chewing on their cage fences, and a giraffe being loaded into a wagon with inadequate space, where it was kept for “two and a half hours during a thunder and lightning storm.” The coordinator also witnessed a tiger trainer using a lunge whip and prod on a tiger’s face and body during a performance, and a ring-tailed lemur clinging to a handler’s shoulder “unsecured” during the Circus World Big Top parade.

Sara Andrews, executive director of the alliance, says she did not witness the incidents in person and could not comment directly on them, but had reviewed the footage and found of it troubling.

“In the video of the giraffe you can see it stumbling in the parade, and there is animal welfare concern with animals being confined in a small area for a long time, especially in bad weather. The alliance does not feel that circuses are appropriate places for wild animals.”

Scott O’Donnell, executive director of Circus World, vehemently denied any animal mistreatment and said he was not contacted by the alliance or sent a copy of its complaint.

“We and the owners didn’t know anything about it until the press showed up,” O’Donnell said. “I think that’s illuminating to the motivation ... they didn’t make us aware ahead of time.”

O’Donnell said the protrusion on the elephant in the complaint is a benign fatty deposit that has been examined and documented by a veterinarian.

“I wish instead of thinking it was the result of something we did they would just ask,” O’Donnell said. “No legitimate organization or business would want to put a human or animal at risk. I understand and we understand a portion of people will not accept animals in captivity, but to slander goes above and is disappointing.”

O’Donnell says Circus World was inspected by the USDA in July and no problems were reported, and that the tiger trainer cited in the complaint posted a “rebuttal” on YouTube, describing the reason for his techniques.

O’Donnell has no plans to personally contact the alliance. “It’s up to the USDA how they want to respond.”


General assignment reporter

Emily Pyrek covers human interest stories, local events and anything involving dogs for the La Crosse Tribune. She is always interested in story ideas and can be contacted at

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